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Words you won't see in your daily paper

August 01, 2004|DAVID SHAW

I had lunch recently with two guys who are making a movie, the title of which will never appear in The Times -- or in any other mainstream daily newspaper, I suspect.

The movie will be called -- well, it's one word and it starts with "F" and it's known variously as "the F-word," the "ultimate obscenity" and, more recently, "The Cheney Proposal."

Steve Anderson, the producer-director of the movie, says he's been "intrigued by the power of 'the F-word' and society's reaction to it ever since I was in high school, and my parents -- without really knowing what it was -- gave me a copy of the George Carlin record ['Class Clown,' which includes the cut 'Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television']."

Now 43, Anderson sees the totemic power of what he calls "this almost magical word" as central to "the entire controversy about free speech," and he hopes to explore its use, impact, history and stigma in his 90-minute film.

Anderson, whose last movie was the quirky comedy "The Big Empty," says he started work on the new film about eight months ago, "long before the Cheney incident. But all the reaction to Cheney almost makes it seem as if people are writing quotes for our [movie] poster."

Since I've long shared Anderson's interest in the power of "the F-word" -- and other obscenities -- and the news media's inability or unwillingness to deal with these words forthrightly, no matter how newsworthy the situation, I'm eagerly anticipating his movie. Maybe it will provide the kind of grown-up discussion of this issue that newspapers are unwilling to engage in without a lot of dots and dashes, euphemisms and circumlocutions. (I feel the same way about racial slurs. To me, "the N-word" is far more offensive than "the F-word." But if the use of either word is truly newsworthy, then I don't see how you can report the news and omit the word.)

When Cheney uttered his now-notorious suggestion that Sen. Patrick J. Leahy perform an anatomically impossible act upon himself, the Washington Post was the only major newspaper I know of that quoted him exactly and published "the F-word." Every other paper -- including The Times -- used one euphemism or another.

Two weeks later, at a fundraiser for the John F. Kerry-John Edwards ticket, Whoopi Goldberg made a sexual pun using President Bush's last name. This time, even the Post declined to report what she said, calling it "a crude wordplay on the president's name." Other newspapers -- including The Times -- were similarly circumspect.

Having discussed this issue often with editors over the years, I know the arguments in favor of such blatant bowdlerizing.

"We're a family newspaper," editors have repeatedly told me. "We don't want to risk offending our readers, especially children."

But children don't read newspapers. Besides, almost every kid old enough to even glance at a newspaper -- never mind going beyond the headlines and the front page -- has heard all these words, and worse, at school and on their CD players.

Instead of worrying about offending these kids (and their parents), maybe we should worry more about being relevant to them, not appearing to pander to them. Who knows -- maybe then they'd read us.

Stay above the fray?

I've thought this in particular when we've covered controversies involving subjects that kids might actually be interested in -- protests and litigation over obscene rap lyrics, for example -- without ever publishing those lyrics.

Editors argue that in our increasingly crude cultural environment, newspapers should maintain a standard of civility -- and that specific "obscene" words aren't necessary because anyone who cares can figure out the words from the hints and euphemisms we provide.

I respectfully disagree.

Specifics -- precise, accurate information and quotation -- are at the heart of news reporting. There is no other area where we are deliberately vague and imprecise and say, "Well, the readers who care can figure this out for themselves."

Don't get me wrong. I don't think newspapers should print obscenities every time a politician or rock star or athlete uses one. But I do think that when the obscenity itself becomes big news -- when, for example, the vice president of the United States utters an obscenity on the floor of the Senate, and his words become the subject of several follow-up stories and part of a presidential campaign controversy -- we owe it to our readers to be specific about what he said so they can judge for themselves whether it's relevant to the ongoing political dialogue.

For what it's worth, I don't think it is relevant in Cheney's case. He got mad, lost his temper and swore. Should he have done it? No. But he's done far worse as a prime mover behind the war in Iraq. Critics should focus on those actions, not his one word, however ill-advised.

This is not the first time the nation's news media have pussyfooted around the obscenity issue. Even in the free speech/free love days of the 1960s and '70s, media taboos remained in force.

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